The Inheritors (1955): William Golding


In September last year, the Guardian published an article by Judy Golding (William’s daughter) about The Inheritors. I read it at the time but only recently tracked it down again. I already want to reread so I can savour the complexities that I missed first time round. But even my quick first read of the article lodged the title in my mind. When I saw a lovely old Faber & Faber edition in Oxfam a few weeks ago, I snaffled it.

It’s a short book, easy enough to get through in a few hours, and it helps to read it in a headlong rush because the spell isn’t broken and you feel yourself more effectively transported into this haunting world. In some ways it’s best to read it completely cold, because very little happens for much of the novel, and it’s not what happens that’s important so much as how it happens. Spoilers follow (just skip to the final paragraph if you prefer not to know more.)

All that happens for the first part of the book is that we follow a family group as they migrate from their winter shelter down by the shore to their summer residence up in the hills. Lok is the naïve, childlike character through whose eyes we see the excitement of the journey, rendered comforting by the familiar summer cave at the far end. Little Liku shares his relish for the adventure, but the other adults are troubled by concerns that happy, simple Lok can’t comprehend. For this journey is not the same as all the others. The log by which they cross the river (they have a deep fear of water) has been moved and they must find a way to reach the far side. Mal, their group elder, is weak and sick, and Lom’s mate Fa is preoccupied. Ha, whose quick mind and problem-solving skills ultimately take them across the river, is equally troubled. For they are no longer alone in their summer refuge. On an island in the middle of the river, smoke rises from between the trees and the family glimpse strange creatures, whose behaviour grows steadily more threatening.

As you gradually realise, without it ever being spelled out, Lok and his family are Neanderthals, a tiny remnant of what was presumably once a much larger community, clinging on to their established migration patterns in a changing world. The strangers on the island, the New People – with their alarming high-browed faces and prominent chins, white as bone – are Homo sapiens, the ancestors of modern humans, and the book looks at how this encounter between past and future plays out. There’s no real indication where in the world we are, although it’s a temperate zone and thus probably somewhere in Europe (though there are wild cats and hyenas). Going back to the Guardian article, I see that Golding conceived it as Savernake Forest in England. As for timing, from the evolutionary state I would guess it’s set sometimes around 40,000 or 35,000 years ago, in the brief window when the two species coexisted.

Seeing things from Lok’s perspective, which is simplistic even by Neanderthal standards, you grow to understand the gentle natural rhythms of his world. Thought and memory are hard concepts to explain; the family try to describe the ‘pictures’ they have in their heads; to some extent they can communicate simple emotions and ideas among the group without the need for speech. Each day is structured around the simple tasks of gathering food and wood for the fire, which is a sacred thing carried carefully from site to site. The people live very frugally, never hunting for themselves as they believe spilling blood angers their earth-spirit (Oa), but taking meat as and when they find carcasses killed by predators. There is no long-term plan: survival, day-to-day, is all that matters. Change is hard to process and abstract problems are hard to tackle. Contrast this with the dynamic, aggressive attitude of the Homo sapiens group, which has built shelters, crafted boats with which to travel on the rivers that so terrify the Neanderthals, and which has created a blood-soaked religion focused on a hunter-god figure. The culture clash is shocking and profoundly destructive, not just to Lok’s family group, but also to their values and habits. Golding puts it well in her article when she talks about Lok and Fa being like innocents in Eden, who fall from grace by witnessing – and later sinking to the level of – the violence and alcohol-consumption of the New People.

Golding creates a poetic, dreamlike world which lulls you with the gentle patterns of Lok’s thought and which emphasises the cataclysmic rift caused by the arrival of the Homo sapiens community. There are times when it is slow and when Lok, for all his endearing naïveté, becomes a trifle trying as a ‘narrator’, but Golding was clever to choose him because it is a classic collision between innocence and worldliness. Beautiful and heart-breaking, it’s a book that’ll stay with you long after you finish it, and which makes you think more closely about evolution, coexistence and the brutal, often senseless laws of survival.

It’s the first Golding I’ve read and it was the subject rather than the writer which appealed to me, but perhaps I’m doing him a disservice? Which of his other books should I look out for? (Lord of the Flies is a given.) And are there other books you’d recommend on this prehistoric period? A friend of mine at school swore by Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series and that might offer an interesting balance to Golding’s tale of culture-clash. Has anyone read those books? Are they worth a go?


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Apologies for the hiatus in posting. This last month really has been a mensis horribilis, with the deaths of two much-loved members of my family, work stepping up a notch, two business trips and several other factors contributing to the general angst. The best I can say for it is that it’s over. On the bright side, I do have several posts lined up to prove that not all was doom and gloom: I also discovered some wonderful books and films. 

4 thoughts on “The Inheritors (1955): William Golding

  1. RT says:

    Dear Leander,

    I am so sorry to hear that you have been having such a tough time, and I really hope things are improving now.

    I have not read Jean M Auel but I do remember giggling when, aeons ago, I read the author bio sheet of a rather eminent publisher turned author who said that she read Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, which came in useful when she turned down Clan of the Cave Bear on the grounds of historical inaccuracy… Rather an expensive mistake!

    Re Golding – try The Spire. I loved it.


  2. Isi says:

    To be honest, I didn't enjoy Lord of the flies that much… I read it twice for my exam in Advanced English, and well, it just didn't appeal to me.
    However, The clan of the cave bear is one of my favourite sagas of all times. The first three books are the best, and I think it shows that period of history very well. Hope you read it!

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